Doing that fish thing she does

Last week Vanessa-Mae - she of the electric white violin and even more electrifying wet-look T-shirt - was left high and dry just before embarking upon her latest national concert tour when her Slovak pick-up band were refused UK work permits. Ian Pillow was there when the emergency call went out to a fellow member of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
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There was a message waiting for Spencer Brown, our principal viola, the Thursday before last. Would he like to play with Vanessa-Mae on Friday and Saturday nights? With an offer like that, how could he refuse? Except that, sadly, as it happened, the Friday night gig was to be in Plymouth and, though we were due to play there on the Thursday, by the following night we'd have moved on to Portsmouth. The Saturday was OK, though - the orchestra's one free day in a fortnight. Spencer rushed to the phone to get the details: Schubert's Trout Quintet at the Bournemouth International Centre - rehearsal at 4pm.

It seemed to be rather an esoteric choice for the wet-look fiddle-chick, but she was on a nationwide tour promoting both her latest CD, and herself "as a serious classical artist".

Now I'm all in favour of glamming up the classical image, especially if it brings in converts to the cause and puts bums on seats. I make one proviso, though. The artist concerned must be good. I'd rather have the world humming along and tapping its feet to the Three Tenors than to a group of over-hyped tone-deaf mediocrities pounding out electric guitars.

Opinions about Vanessa-Mae's musical talents seemed to vary considerably amongst the band. Our leader for the week called her "a terrible violinist", whereas our coach-driver thought she was rather good. He was winding Spencer up something rotten on the journey back from Plymouth, talking about glasses steaming up, not being able to get the bow on the string, and making sure that the up-bow steered well clear of her back-side, which apparently plays a lively part in the proceedings. The "serious artist" bit has yet to permeate his psyche.

There was one way of finding out the truth. I decided to tag along with Spencer to the rehearsal. Watching the way she approached a masterpiece of Viennese chamber music at close quarters in rehearsal, away from all the razzmatazz, would be a true test of her musicianship.

Nobody was around when we reached the BIC at four o'clock on the Saturday afternoon. Spencer and I looked in vain for anyone carrying a cello or a double-bass (the other two string instruments which, together with Vanessa- Mae's violin and a piano, would make up the numbers for Schubert's quintet). Some time later two girls wandered into the hall. Were they the cello and bass? "No. We're the backing group. We were told to be here at four." Now, it's a long while since I've played the Trout Quintet, but I don't remember any backing group. Perhaps the Schubert scholars have unearthed a new urtext.

We went backstage to see if there was anybody else around and eventually discovered the tour manager, tucked away in a little office.

"Vanessa is getting here at five."

"Can my friend sit in on the rehearsal?" asks Spencer.

"Vanessa doesn't usually like people drifting in."

"He's my caddie," insists Spencer ("I think you should take a No 5 bow for the fourth variation," I imagine myself advising, "there's a nasty bunker in the 11th bar").

"Oh, all right then."

"Did you get a viola player for Plymouth by the way?" Spencer enquires.

"No, we didn't."

"How did you manage in The Trout, then?"

"We had to ditch the fish thing."

What a shame. Going all out for the culture image and she has to ditch the "fish thing".

We'd just sat down for a cup of tea when we heard a red-hot rock version of Bach's Toccata and Fugue pounding out from the hall, electric fiddle sawing away demoniacally. The rehearsal had started. We rushed in. Sure enough, there was the group - a couple of electric guitars, a keyboard and several percussion players - all jigging about to the racket, totally possessed. But no Vanessa- Mae. So the whole show was going to be mimed, was it? Spencer looked worried. He had trained as a musician, not as an actor.

The row soon stopped and all was quiet again. By 5 o'clock there was still no sign of any Troutites. At 5.11 there was a sudden burst of activity: four men came in to lay a carpet on the stage. At 5.17 another carpet was laid on top of the first one. At 5.23 both carpets were taken up again, rolled up and carried away.

At 5.31 Vanessa-Mae herself bounced in, wearing a bright orange jacket and a pair of jeans. She started discussing with an older, oriental-looking woman where she should stand. But there was still no sign of a cellist or double-bass player, let alone a pianist. Eventually Spencer went up to the older woman, who seemed to be in charge of everything (and turned out later to be not only Vanessa's mum but also the missing piano-player), introduced himself, and asked where the cello and bass were.

"They're at Covent Garden playing Swan Lake."

"When's the rehearsal, then?"

"There isn't one."

Spencer thought he'd better introduce himself to the star. She gave him a perfunctory handshake, and skipped off.

"Vanessa-Mae," I quipped wittily, "but, judging by that handshake, I don't think she will."

We repaired to the pub. Spencer's one free afternoon, the first time in a fortnight when he could have been out on the golf course, had been spent watching four men lay carpets.

So, what was Vanessa-Mae like at the concert?

I actually sided with the coach-driver rather than with the leader. It was difficult to tell in that dreadful place, with its dreadful acoustic, but I'd say she played accurately, cleanly, and with a pure tone - what I could hear of her.

Even before she made her first appearance on stage, her voice had boomed spookily out of speakers in a darkened hall, as she gave a yukky description of her opening number - Bruch's Scottish Fantasy. "Bleak Scottish mists," said the voice, "the sun suddenly piercing the gloom onto the shining mountains, the drone of the bagpipes, and a rumbestuous [sic] Scottish dance."

As if to dispel her Penthouse image, she then appeared in a dazzling virgin-white evening gown.

After the first section the man next to me was impressed. "She plays without music," he gasped in wonderment to his wife. Before the last section Vanessa re-tuned her violin. "Those are the bagpipes, I suppose," he mused.

Spencer enjoyed his evening. He did not have to mime, although he might just as well have done. The venue's acoustics were about as helpful to string players as chloro-form, and anyway Vanessa's mum at the piano was doing her level best to imitate an entire symphony orchestra and drowning out everyone else (Vanessa included) in the process. As Spencer poetically put it, when I told him I hadn't heard a note he'd played all evening, "Funny that. I was knocking shit out of it." But he had won Vanessa-Mae's gratitude, earned himself a few bob, and learnt how to lay carpets.

Some names have been changed to protect the innocent

Vanessa-Mae `and friends' play the Barbican, Silk St, London EC2, 7.30pm Monday. Booking: 0171-638 8891

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